“They want me to be bankrupt, they want my wife to leave me, they want me to jump off a building,” says Steven Donziger, a lawyer based in New York City whose team won an unprecedented judgment against Chevron in 2011. That year, an Ecuadorean court found Texaco guilty of having polluted close to 2,000 square miles of the Amazon basin with crude oil, toxic wastewater, and other contaminants. The country’s Supreme Court eventually ordered the company’s successor, Chevron, to pay $9.5 billion for environmental remediation, medical treatment, and other relief for those affected. But Donziger’s victory painted a bull’s-eye on his back. The lawyer says he’s been watched; that he’s had laptops, thousands of documents, bank statements, and tax returns seized by court order and handed to Chevron’s lawyers; and that friends and supporters have been turned against him by threats of ruinous lawsuits.
Worst of all, this March a New York federal judge convicted Donziger under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of heading a criminal undertaking that had corrupted and intimidated Ecuadorean judges in order to shake down Chevron. (If the $9.5 billion awarded to his clients were ever collected, Donziger, who has worked on the case for most of the two decades it took to reach completion, would stand to earn millions in lawyer’s fees.) Donziger has appealed. Even if he is vindicated, however, this novel deployment of the RICO Act—normally applied to mobsters and drug syndicates—adds a particularly nasty weapon to the already formidable arsenal that U.S. multinationals have developed, with considerable help from American judges, to defeat demands for accountability by litigants in poor foreign countries.